Guest contributor: Katherine Heiny

Origami and the Art of Fiction

categories: Cocktail Hour


Origami Box by Chris Palmer


If you’re reading this and hoping it will be a piece about how folding origami helped me become a better writer, you can stop right now. It’s not about that. It’s about how when my son Angus asked if we could go to the National Origami Convention, I nearly started bleating with fear and panic—but also about how a very small part of me thought: Maybe I could write a story about it.

Katherine Heiny (by Leonard Bailey)

Origami is nothing new in my life; Angus has been obsessed with it for years now.  I have driven miles through the countryside to buy special paper from an excitable woman, and then stayed and groomed her dog while the woman and Angus folded a praying mantis together.  (There was nothing else to do, believe me, or I’d have done it.)  My husband and I traveled to New York so Angus could attend a class on how to fold a spiked icosahedron, and when the instructor held Angus’s paper up to the class as an example, the forty-ish man sitting next to him was so overcome with jealous rage that the tendons in his neck stood out.  I have waited in line for more than half an hour so that Angus could have an origami book signed by a man who looked like a suburban serial killer, and we actually paid for Angus to have a private origami session with a man I believe to have been clinically insane.  I have accompanied Angus to origami clubs and lectures and meetings and endured excruciatingly stilted conversations with people who don’t get my jokes and who look down on me because I don’t know how to fold a bird base.  At all of these places, people ask, “Do you fold?” (in the hopeful manner in which swingers ask if you swing), and when I say no, all the animation leaks out of their expressions.  And now Angus wanted to go a three-day conference!  With a dinner-dance!  I felt nothing but a sort of animal terror.

Except — except — I had been thinking for a while that I’d like to write a story about all the crazy origami people I’d met.  I’m writing a series of stories about a couple who have a son who’s very into origami, and it occurred to me that I could make this couple go to an origami convention, though that seemed like a mean thing to do to my characters, and I’m very fond of them.  I thought I would wait until after the convention to write the story but in the end, I couldn’t — the story bubbled up too quickly.  I wrote it in ten days, and writing it was fun and absorbing and surprising and rewarding — all the things that writing should be and almost never is.  The story turned out to be one of my favorites.

So tonight my husband sits at the kitchen counter, his laptop open to the origami convention website.  “Shall I book it?” he asks nervously.  My husband is a former MI6 agent who used to be under death threat from the KGB — not much makes him nervous, but apparently the thought of an origami dinner-dance does.

“Go for it,” I say, bold as a rooster.

After a moment’s hesitation, my husband clicks the CONFIRM button and we’re off, or we will be, come June.  My heart is light, and it would almost (but not quite) be accurate to say that I’m looking forward to it.   Because some people get to find inspiration, and some people get to make their children happy — I get to do both.


[Katherine Heiny’s stories have been published in The New YorkerThe Antioch ReviewThe Greensboro Review, The Saranac ReviewSeventeen, and many other publications, anthologized in Nothing But You: Love Stories From The New Yorker, presented on Selected Shorts on NPR, optioned by Merchant-Ivory and HBO, and performed off-Broadway.  She lives in Washington DC with her husband and two sons. ]


  1. deg writes:

    So what is the title of the story you wrote and where can I find it to read it?

  2. jennifer writes:

    HOW did you make that lid I would love to learn. I’m pretty advanced in origami and I love learning how to make new things

  3. Lenka writes:

    As usual, you made me lough. You are perfect mother and Angus is perfect origami folder. Dont worry, you will do your dinner -dance 🙂 And hopefuly I will get to read your origami story one day.

  4. Jojo writes:

    Very fun piece. I guess you are not going to fold at the convention. Will you dance? With a folder?

  5. Katherine Heiny writes:

    Thank you, everyone, for the comments. We’ve since found out that everyone going to convention must declare themselves “folders” or “non-folders” — sort of like at weddings where you have to choose between the bride or the groom’s side.

  6. Mimi Harter writes:

    Kathy is a fine writer and has a fantastic memory. We laugh a lot when we’re together.

  7. Sascha writes:

    You’re a great mom and an incredible writer. As much as I love your fiction, this poignantly funny piece makes me want to read your memoirs. Any chance?

  8. David Kidd writes:

    As much as I love the fiction you’re generating from this, I’m going to ask you to read Stefan Fatsis’ book “Word Freak” about his immersion into the world of competitive Scrabble and think… just think… about writing a non-fiction book about this origami subculture. It would be SO entertaining. Please. Pretty please.

  9. Susan writes:
  10. Cathy writes:

    As a mother who will be traveling to Houston with her son this summer to attend the Junior Olympics sport stacking event (a culmination of years of such tournaments), I understand, and sympathize. At least paper folding is quieter. Best of luck. Great piece of writing!

  11. Lisa writes:

    Oh, wow. My mother IS one of those crazy origami people and I have BEEN to the convention of what you speak. Yes, full of characters, for sure. But also more interesting than you would think!!

    Fabulous piece. I can’t wait to read more by Katherine Heiny!

  12. Carl Fritz writes:

    Excellent piece, Kath! It conjured up an errant thought on my part: Wouldn’t it be nice if the National Origami Convention could be held in Washington, DC, where it triggered an Origami obsession epidemic among members of Congress, thus diverting from passage of further 2,700-page pieces of ill-considered “legislation”?

  13. Shelley Burbank writes:

    Funny! Now I want to read those stories about the crazy origami people.

  14. Bill writes:

    I love this piece, Katherine. I think we may need another from the convention floor. Happy, um, folding!